The keen reader approaches Thoreau warily. His words and phrases lurk hidden in the depth of shadow like the creatures of the wild he admired so greatly and studied with such intentness. They wait, coiled upon the page, to strike the casual saunterer in the subtle-colored forest of his wit.
We readers cannot rely upon intellectual pretense to protect us from the creatures of thought that pack these pages nor count upon convention to carry us slumbering to a familiar ending like exhausted riders returned to stable by a trusted old mare.
Familiar ground, to Thoreau, is like high ground, best traveled in times of danger but never assumed safe, always reconsidered, studied with the unfamiliar eye.
We shed old paradigms as the snake sheds his skins. We look beneath the eternal and from within the minutiae of common existence analyze the few disconnected dots available to us and, like 19th-century astronomers discovering canals on Mars, we claim to recognize the great constellations of the moral and intellectual universe -- lacking, as we must, the clarity of vision that marked that first recognition by an earlier but not more primitive man.
For Thoreau there was no sure thing. His was a predatory mind, a cold and piercing March wind of a mind. Yet he would often wander in the balm of May and June as lazy as a vagabond; or recline beneath a thick-limbed maple and press an ear to the deep bark, listening to the chatter of the cells, carpenters of a miraculous sort building fiber and vessels. Still, he would never allow himself to become deafened by the din, blinded by the brilliant clutter, or struck dumb by the recognition of so many different tongues. For, as he wrote: "He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his serivce, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them -- transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring. . . ?"
Here was the challenge to incite Thoreau. He would drive his stakes wherever his nature found his and he would construct a fence of reason and insight, strung with the barbs of history and philosophy, stapled by anecdote to the pulpy phloem of life itself -- life too important -- too vital -- to be segmented, stripped, pointed and stabbed into the earth. Unless, that is, it grew roots and created a new stand, part of a living fence designed not to enshroud the wilderness but to keep out the domesticator so this paradise was not polluted with the effluvia of civilization.
Thoreau showed that he knew wherein salvation lay. "It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were."
He had no truck with them who would not muck barefoot about swamps replete with the rot and decay that replenish the stores of the earth's evolution.
I have stood at the mouth of a country road deep in the heart of winter and studied the pink and gray, pastel-streaked evening sky, watched the silver specks come alight within the deepening blue, caught the sparkle of last rays of white light shattered into bits of color by the crystal flakes strewn across the wayside; and thought, hungrily, with the lean imagination of the warrior and poet, that from this comes art, that if I could recreate this beauty only once, capture it in a glass like the scene within a paperweight, if I could paint this picture with words so that people could read and see it, then I would be an artist. Tattered leaves, confetti leaves, the swell of air blows hard then soft. . . .
I have stood by the woodshed in the fall, my saw at rest, the cool New England air chilling me with anticipation. Looking across the tops of maple and oak, watching the sky as the medieval tiller must have, like a wildman of the hills searching for omens, staring into the ever-deepening twilight as the sky hung balanced precariously upon the edge of day, the earth tumbling beneath it, falling, falling into night. . . .
. . . At these times I have seen things, things that Thoreau must also have seen -- congealings of the imagination that leap across time and space, forming into primordial shapes and forces: jet planes and dragons, comets and eagles and mountaintops dancing, serpents and griffins and other fanciful embellishments upon our consciousnesses that indicate a "faint and shadowy knowledge of a previous state of organic existence."
I have stood silently and seen the world in a different light, have felt the presence of Thoreau in the sunset, have seen him stalking the horizon as a giant cat stalks wary prey in the dimness, moving stealthily across the field of our consciousness, stopping, crouching, and then . . . leaping.